Category: Books

Larry King Interview, 1989

I've got to admit, part of the charm of Larry King is that he doesn't do his homework and, frequently, has no idea what the hell he's talking about. And he does not disappoint in this interview: right off the bat he gets the title of the book wrong. Three times.

Still better than watching Piers Morgan.

Concerning Tolkiens

A few weeks back, Tom Spurgeon had this to say:

[F]or some reason I ended up with this Christopher Tolkien Le Monde interview in my bookmarks folder. It's instructive to read something about a family wanting certain rights returned or better rewarded when most people really like what's been done with those rights as opposed to their either not caring or actively hating the result. One of the reasons a lot of our comics-related issue discussions remain unsophisticated is that we frequently choose to fight our battles along fundamental "I like it"/"I hate it" lines and then kind of furiously stare at the other issues involved until we can find a way to make them comply to our initial impression. It's no way to move forward.

He's not wrong. Given my established stance on creators' rights -- and creators' heirs' rights -- I'd be remiss in not confronting this conundrum.

Now, I like the movies. They're not perfect (The Two Towers, in particular, completely botches the narrative arc, overemphasizing the importance of Helm's Deep and an inexplicable new Osgiliath subplot while shunting the two actual climaxes of the book to the first act of the third movie -- and in one case, removing it from the theatrical cut entirely), but on the whole they're really pretty good. But yeah, there are some uncomfortable facts surrounding them.

To reiterate: my stance is that copyright law lasts far too long; in my opinion The Hobbit should have been public domain by now. But given that it isn't, we should respect the rights of the creators -- and given that, in this case, JRR Tolkien is no longer with us, we should respect the rights of his heirs. For legal purposes, the Tolkien Estate is JRR Tolkien.

But there are a couple of other factors at work here, too.

It was JRR himself who sold the film rights. Willingly, and with the intent to make sure his heirs were cared for financially.

That said, he was taken advantage of. Ever hear of the first ever Hobbit movie? It was made in a month, ran 12 minutes, and was only screened once -- because Tolkien's lawyers were incompetent, and left a loophole allowing the studio to retain the rights to Lord of the Rings as long as they produced a full-color film by a given deadline. Length and distribution were not specified; a 12-minute movie screened once satisfied the contract.

It wouldn't be the last time lawyers worked to game the system. Forty years later, Warner would produce the blockbuster Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and, through the usual Hollywood creative bookkeeping tactics, claim that it had not turned any profit and therefore they didn't owe any money to the Tolkien Estate. It took a lawsuit for the Estate to receive any money from the films.

(This is the point in any creators' rights debate where some corporate apologist inevitably explains to me that publicly-traded companies are beholden to their shareholders and therefore obligated to hoard as much money as humanly possible and do everything they can to avoid paying a single cent more than they have to. Why, it would be unethical for them not to try and get out of paying the Tolkien Estate! I welcome any such apologist to explain to me precisely how it was in Time Warner shareholders' best interest to expose the company to multiple lawsuits -- not just from the Tolkiens but from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who New Line also tried to stiff -- and trap The Hobbit in development hell for the better part of a decade, to the point where it appeared for quite some time that it wouldn't get made at all.)

And there's one more sad old saw that the apologists like to trot out: "Well, what did the heirs ever do?" That's one I see a lot in the conversations about the heirs of Jack Kirby, or Jerry Siegel, or Joe Shuster, et al.

I think it's a hollow argument. Creators do their work expecting to leave something for their families, and dismissing heirs outright effectively means giving luck-of-the-draw based on the age at which a person dies. (Do you believe Jack Kirby should have received money from The Avengers if he had lived to 95, and would have left that money to his children? If so, why do you believe his children don't deserve that money just because he died at 76? If not, then what the hell does it matter whether his heirs did the work or not, if you don't think the guy who did do the work shouldn't have been compensated for the adaptation?)

But even if you don't buy that line of reasoning, well, this is one case where "What did the heirs ever do?" is a pretty piss-poor rhetorical question. Because in this case the answer is "Assemble, edit, and publish about 30 of his books." Make no mistake -- Christopher Tolkien hasn't simply sat back and waited for checks to roll in; he has made it his life's work to get as much of his father's work into print as humanly possible. And it's not so simple as just finding old pages and retyping them -- many of the writings are fragmentary, and many would be incomprehensible without Christopher's extensive annotations. Without his work, Tolkien's body of published work would be far poorer.

Actually, that brings up another point entirely: the Hobbit movie isn't simply an adaptation of The Hobbit. It includes material from Unfinished Tales -- a book which I'm fairly confident Warner, MGM, et al do not have the movie rights to.

Now, I'm sure Warner's got very expensive lawyers on this. And maybe I'm misremembering -- it's been years since I read Unfinished Tales, longer since I read Lord of the Rings, longer still since I read The Hobbit. Maybe the LotR appendices have enough information about the Fall of Erebor, how Thorin earned the name Oakenshield, Gandalf's meeting with Thráin, and the White Council that Jackson, Walsh, Boyens, and del Toro can plausibly claim that they only adapted material from The Hobbit and LotR -- but if I were the Tolkien Estate's lawyers, I'd be poring over the movie right now looking for material from Unfinished Tales and any other posthumously-published Tolkien work that the studios never bought the rights for.

All that said? I like the LotR films and the Hobbit film. I'm sorry that Christopher Tolkien wishes they didn't exist, and I feel a little bad about that. I feel worse still about how the studios have treated the Tolkien Estate, and I believe it's genuinely unconscionable that they tried to stiff them out of compensation for the films. And yes, I suspect that the latest movie does adapt material from books it's not legally allowed to. (I'm also none too happy about the reports of union-busting and animal mistreatment, come to that.)

Stuff like this is personal. I believe that, for example, The Avengers hit a point where I couldn't in good conscience pay to see the movie; I believe that The Hobbit, despite the caveats above, did not. I believe the point that Tolkien's heirs do get a substantial amount of money from their father's work -- even if they had to go to court for some of it -- while Kirby's and Heck's heirs don't is a major reason for that. Spurgeon's point is intriguing -- but I really do like to think I've formed my opinions based on the circumstances of the dispute, and not simply looked for facts that made me feel good about seeing a movie I already wanted to see.

tl;dr I think The Hobbit was pretty great. There are some uncomfortable things going on behind the scenes and we should think about those. Personally I don't think they justify a boycott -- but everyone should be aware of them, consider them, and come to their own conclusions.

Concerning Hobbits

Well, I really liked The Hobbit. Though I'm a Tolkien geek (let's go through the list: read all the appendices in LotR, read The Silmarillion twice, Unfinished Tales, both volumes of The Book of Lost Tales, and The Lays of Beleriand; I've got a couple more books in the set that I haven't gotten around to because you can only read so many different versions of The Children of Húrin before you need a break) and I can understand the mixed reviews from people whose hearts aren't filled with joy at hearing Gandalf's semantic deconstruction of the phrase "Good morning."

Let me start off by saying, I saw the IMAX 3D version, but not the HFR version -- my local IMAX is still equipped with a film projector, no digital. (As such I didn't see the Star Trek feature or any trailers, either.) So I can't speak to HFR. The comments I've heard from family who have range from "It didn't make much difference" to "It gave me a headache, and the CG characters looked great but the human actors looked terrible."

All that said: there are plenty of other eccentricities to the film, and while I think they all come out okay, I can see why there's disagreement.

(Spoilers follow. Though I think they're pretty minor, all things considered.)

Foremost, It's the first of three three-hour movies adapted from a book that could be comfortably translated to 90 minutes.

And, related, it achieves that length by padding it out with tonally-inconsistent material from other books.

Much of which includes appearances by characters who aren't in the book, most of them from the LotR films.

Truth be told, I'm okay with all those things.

First: the reality is, while The Hobbit the book is a standalone novel which was published prior to Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit the films are prequels to an already-successful movie trilogy. There are different expectations here -- and for continuity's sake, the audience wants to see familiar actors reprising their roles.

That said, none of it felt tacked-on to me. Even the framing sequence with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood -- well, okay, so it seems to imply that Bilbo wrote the whole book in a single day and that seems pretty nutty, but aside from that, it provides a sense of continuity with the LotR films, and also allows Holm to narrate the Dwarves' backstory.

Which I suppose brings me to the point of extraneous material: while this film pads out The Hobbit with material from other books (mostly Unfinished Tales), it adapts that material faithfully. There are some liberties here and there (like the White Council meeting in Rivendell instead of Lothlórien), but on the whole it's true to the backstory that Tolkien wrote.

And the thing is, considering The Hobbit as prequel instead of a standalone work, it's important to include the portions of the story that lead into Lord of the Rings. The Necromancer in Dol Guldur? Not only does that story lay the groundwork for LotR, it's also central to Gandalf's motivation. Why is the world's greatest wizard interested in thirteen Dwarves' quest to slay a dragon? Because he doesn't want Sauron to have a dragon. In The Hobbit as a standalone work, that's not really important -- Gandalf's just a mysterious and eccentric old wizard -- but coming from Lord of the Rings first, people are bound to wonder just what he's doing with Thorin's company, and where he's going all those times he wanders off. (And I'm hoping the sequels delve a little deeper into his meeting with Thráin.)

And to that end, bringing in Galadriel and Saruman for a powwow isn't just a tacked-on scene -- it's part of Gandalf's story. And moving it from Lothlórien to Rivendell makes good narrative sense. Plus it gives the movie a chance to depict Elrond in a way that's more consistent with Lord of the Rings -- because let's be honest here, in the books Elrond in The Hobbit and Elrond in LotR may as well be different characters.

(Poor old Christopher Lee, by the way -- he's really not looking so good. And am I correct in thinking he was green-screened in and wasn't even filmed in the same room with the other three actors? Nevertheless, it was good to see him and I'm glad he was in good enough health to shoot the scene.)

The downside, I suppose, is that it does bring in those tonal inconsistencies I mentioned. The Hobbit is a children's fairytale, while Lord of the Rings is an epic myth. They're very different books, written for different audiences -- and the movie version of The Hobbit tries to be both.

Personally I think it succeeds -- I think it does a great job of mixing the light elements of the Bilbo story with the darker ones of Gandalf's, and the Dwarves' backstory -- but I'll acknowledge there's something regrettable about a Hobbit movie that you wouldn't want to take your kids to see, lest the on-screen decapitation of Thrór give them nightmares.

That said, I'm perfectly all right with the trolls resembling the Three Stooges and the Great Goblin being a disgusting, bullfrog-throated wretch played by Barry "Dame Edna" Humphries. There may be some fans (casual or Serious) who don't care for those depictions, but I think they fit the story just fine.

And then there's Radagast. His part of the story is probably the biggest departure from Tolkien's work, but, perhaps not coincidentally, was my favorite. Sylvester McCoy plays him as a wonderfully batty character who is nonetheless wise and compassionate -- not to mention a damn fine wizard. And Gandalf's respect for him, and Saruman's lack thereof, perfectly encapsulate the difference between those two characters: Gandalf sees the value in those who seem humble, meek, weak, or just plain weird, while Saruman's arrogance blinds him to the nature of true power. It's the same mistake he makes in judging Hobbits (though that's got the added dash of hypocrisy that he's quite happy to drink their wine and smoke their pipe-weed).

Which I suppose brings me to another criticism: We've seen this all before. Bilbo's opening narration about the fall of Erebor mirrors Galadriel's narration about the fall of Sauron in Fellowship of the Ring; the battle outside the gates of Moria looks an awful lot like that battle, too. (An aside: nice touch having Balin tell the story of the Dwarves' attempt to recapture Moria. I'm guessing most of the audience won't make the connection to Balin's Tomb in Fellowship, but it's a good bit for the fans.) The escape from Goblin Town is like the escape from Khazad-Dûm re-staged as a comedy. Hell, they even work Weathertop in there.

So, for all of that, I can see how this movie can feel like more of the same -- redundant, maybe even unnecessary.

But for my part, it didn't seem that way -- in fact, I'd say I really enjoyed the hell out of it.

Freak Out! A Day with Cal Schenkel by Pauline Butcher

Via uploader paulineharrisonbird (née, presumably, Butcher):

Cal Schenkel, artist/designer of early Frank Zappa albums, Freak Out, Absolutely Free, We're Only In It for the Money, and others is seen here hanging out with Pauline Butcher, secretary to Frank Zappa and author of Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa; Squidget, Gail Zappa's younger brother (not Midget as annotated) and Casey, caretaker to Frank and Gail Zappa. 'Anything' was written and is sung by Ray Collins (from Ruben & the Jets).

Ms. Butcher Bird is the author of the book Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa. I expect I'll be getting back to her at some point...

(And yes it's a little past midnight and I'm cheating on the timestamp again. Ran late with that Who post. And here I didn't know what I was going to post about today...)

Bissette on Ditko

Bissette's got a post up today about The Creativity of Ditko, Craig Yoe's latest gorgeous, thoroughly-documented collection of Ditko's work. I picked up a used copy of The Art of Ditko a couple months ago and I share Bissette's sentiment: it's incredible, but it does have a bit of an uncomfortable undercurrent, knowing that Ditko receives no money from these volumes and wishes they didn't exist.

Bissette covers Ditko pretty regularly. In this piece he links to a couple of previous essays, one of which is a response to Bob Heer's interpretation of the famous story of Ditko using original art as a cutting board. (To summarize: Greg Theakston once told a story of seeing cut-up original artwork in Ditko's apartment and pleading with him to stop using it as a cutting-board; Ditko refused. Heer believes that Theakston is not lying but that he misinterpreted the situation -- Ditko didn't cut up the artwork himself, it was probably returned to him in that condition, and, Ditko being Ditko, he didn't correct Theakston's assumption. Bissette adds that it's very unlikely that Ditko would have been using heavy enough paper stock in those days to serve as a cutting board, and that publishers used to frequently cut up original art after they were done with it.)

And Bissette reminds us, where Yoe doesn't, that Ditko is still active and still publishing through Robin Snyder.

The work is obscure because Snyder is a small publisher and doesn't use the Internet, but Bissette makes the reasonable point that the reason Ditko only works with Snyder is that Snyder is the only publisher who ever treated him right (other than the long-defunct Charlton Comics).

Bissette's covered Snyder's catalog in the past, too; he wrote a great post last year, in the wake of the Marvel v Kirby judgement, about everything Ditko's published about his years with Marvel. He references a long run of magazine articles Ditko published, around the time the first Spider-Man movie was released, which are still available through mail order. I keep meaning to check with my local comic shop and see if they can put in an order for some of those issues -- I'd be happy to order directly from Snyder, but I also think my LCS might be interested in stocking a few extra copies -- but money's been too tight. Still, one of these days...


Update 2012-09-12: Bissette has a followup post up; go read it!

It includes a response from Craig Yoe himself; among other things he disputes the claim that Ditko is opposed to the existence of these books -- Yoe says he's been in touch with Ditko and, while he's chosen not to participate or profit, he hasn't objected to them either, and approved Paul Levitz's introduction to Creativity. (No word on whether he approved Stan Lee's introduction to Art.)

There are also some fantastically thorough posts by Rob Imes in the comments section; one is a list of recommendations for Ditko's more recent, Snyder-published work, and another is a lengthy rumination on collections like this that do not compensate the original artists.

More Kirby for Me!

Well, in a lucky capper to Jack Kirby's birthday week, I found a copy of Kirby: King of Comics, by Mark Evanier, at my local Barnes and Noble for about 75% off.

It doesn't appear to be in stock on the B&N website, but check your local store; maybe you'll get lucky too.

Sure is purty. It'll look great next to my copy of The Art of Ditko.

Searchin'

Updated Favorite Searches. If there are two essential truths you should always remember, they are these: alan moore still complaining and popeye bad ass. Words to live by, my friends. Words to live by.


Playing: Oh God, you'd think I have ADD or something. Recently I have played Crackdown, Last Story, Xenoblade, Sonic 2 Delta, and Mottzilla's patch for BS Zelda. One of these days I'll probably even share some thoughts on each of them.

Reading: Rule 34 by Charles Stross.

It-Girl and the Atomics #1

Haven't picked up this week's comics; still going through the last two weeks' worth.

It-Girl and the Atomics is a mixed bag, but I think I'll be sticking around.

The trouble, I think, is that Allred fans are spoiled. Mike Allred's lines and Laura Allred's colors feel inseparable from their work -- to the point that I was actually disappointed when Darwyn Cooke would do a fill-in on X-Statix! Darwyn Cooke! And I don't even remember Paul Pope doing one! (I am older and wiser now and one of these days should really get all those old issues out, read through them, and give Cooke and Pope the respect they deserve.)

So this is a Madman spinoff that doesn't have Madman in it and -- the cover aside -- is not written, drawn, or inked by Doc, or colored by Laura. Instead, we've got Jamie Rich writing, Mike Norton on art, and Allen Passalaqua on colors. And, well, it's not Allred but it's not bad.

First, to the art. Norton does a pretty solid job -- I'm not familiar with his previous work, and his best bits make me feel like he's referencing Amanda Conner or Jaime Hernandez (and Dr. Flem bears a certain resemblance to Dr. Venture), but you know, if he's copying then he's picked damn fine people to copy, and if he isn't, then it's still a pretty favorable comparison. Plus he seems to know how to draw women with different body types, which is unfortunately a rarity in superhero comics.

And, in this age of muddy digital inking, it bears adding that Norton's inks look really good.

To the writing, well, some of it's really good and some of it's mediocre, but none of it's bad. The real highlight is the dilemma faced by the Skunk, the small-time supervillain who killed It-Girl's sister. This being a superhero comic, she got better -- so his conviction's been overturned and he's out of prison, but the experience scared him straight and he's doing his best to walk the straight and narrow.

So, a couple of great things about that setup: first of all, "criminal tries to reform but finds it's not so easy" is a classic premise for a story; it's an easy conflict to relate to and gives you an underdog to root for. And second, it's a pleasing bit of metacommentary on the nature of superhero comics -- and fits right in to the oddball world Allred has crafted in Snap City.

So that's the high point. The low point is probably a segment early on where It-Girl is playing an online game and, interrupted, complains that she has to save her settings or someone will steal the shoes she just got.

Jamie, that is not how online games work. That doesn't even make sense.

But, you know, that's my biggest gripe about this issue, and that's small potatoes. Really I think the comic is pretty good, and I expect I'll be back for the next one.


Special bonus comics thought: Godzilla: The Half-Century War: Oh, IDW, you had me at "James Stokoe". But you're telling me this is actually Marvels in the Godzilla universe?! This is the best "something I didn't even know I wanted" revelation since Charles Stross crossed James Bond with HP Lovecraft with Office Space.

What I Did This Weekend

  • Drove to Tucson
  • Saw Brave
  • Went to Bookman's. Bought a used copy of Perdido Street Station and the first Cerebus trade.
  • Watched MST3K (Night of the Blood Beast). Slept through the middle.
  • Had some barbecue -- David grilled up some turkey burgers and chicken dogs
  • Watched Godzilla: Final Wars
  • Caught Vertigo at an independent theater
  • Hit up an Irish pub. (Tip: 20%, plus an extra dollar for live music, plus one more dollar for not charging me for my pint of Guinness. Considered one more dollar for overflowing the urinal; decided that wasn't really my fault, and hey, I let the waiter know.)
  • Walked out into a monsoon; got good and wet.
  • Dealt with the joy of Arizona drivers in heavy rain.
  • Came home.

Good times.

And my good friend Jim is off to New Mexico for grad school. Good on ya, Jim.

The Cheap Theater

I don't go to as many movies as I used to.

Mostly it's because I used to go to a lot of movies with my dad, and he's in Maui now.

But price plays into it too. Ticket prices have fucking skyrocketed, outpaced pretty much only by comic books.

This week, I went to Tempe Cinemas a couple times. It used to be what we called the dollar theater, but now it's $3, or $2 on Tuesdays.

But on the plus side, the place has improved. They've fixed up the bathrooms, the theaters are in better shape, and they appear to have switched to digital projectors, because the picture is fucking clean. Digital projection gets rid of one of the major drawbacks to seeing a movie at the cheap theater: you no longer find yourself looking at a print that's been viewed a few hundred times and is covered in scratches.

Anyhow, I caught two very different movies this week: The Pirates: Band of Misfits and Cabin in the Woods.

Pirates is Aardman. And I love me some Aardman, and have since I first saw The Wrong Trousers close on 20 years ago.

It's got a great cast (and #2 even looks like Martin Freeman), a ton of sight gags and one-liners that fly by fast, and a swordfight with Queen Victoria. It is recommended viewing for all ages!

Cabin in the Woods is not recommended viewing for all ages, but it is recommended viewing! I went into it cold, knowing nothing about it beyond "cabin-in-the-woods horror movie co-written and produced by Joss Whedon", and I think that is the optimal way to see it, so I will say nothing about it except that I love that there is actually a plot explanation for all the clichés, all the archetypes, and why the teenagers keep doing stupid shit.

Now, there was something a little odd about it: I'm pretty confident it was another digital copy, because the print was crystal clear for the most part, but there were a couple of spots, lines, and pops over the course of the movie. I'm curious: were these artificial and intentional? Like, did anybody else see it and notice a big black spot on the print right after the girl takes off her top? Because I'm tempted to believe this was some kind of Grindhouse-style deliberate fuckery, but I can't say for sure.

(Failing that, is there any other possible explanation for a few analog artifacts on an otherwise pristine, seemingly digital print? Like, is there a digital-file-to-analog-projector thing going on and the projector occasionally hiccups, or what? Or did I just see a film print that was in really, really good shape despite being at the cheap theater?)

Now, despite my gushing about the picture quality, which is better than I've ever seen it at Tempe Cinemas previously, the projection left something to be desired. Pirates had a couple of edges cut off, and about the right 1/8 of the picture in Cabin was out of focus.

Still and all, the seats were nice, the picture and sound were great, the audiences were well-behaved -- I had a better experience at the cheap theater than I usually do at the regular theater, and I suspect I will be making this a more frequent habit. There are plenty of movies coming out that I'd like to see in the theater but not pay full price for.

And they had a promo going: a new restaurant called Pizza 'n Greens opened a few doors down from the theater, and they're offering a $1 pizza slice if you bring a ticket stub in (or 10% off your whole bill). We went in after Pirates, and each ordered a slice. Instead of a slice, they made us fresh little miniature pizzas, and the service was great. We decided to come back and spend more -- which we did, after seeing Cabin. This time I tried a calzone and my lady tried a fatoush (Mediterranean salad) -- because as it turns out the menu is a sort of interesting mix of pizza and middle-eastern food. (I was tempted to have a chicken shawerma but decided I was in the mood for a good calzone at the last minute.) Anyway, once again, good food, great service, look forward to going again, recommend them, and oh by the way they deliver until 5 AM so if you need delivery at all hours of the night they're a good option for that.

And then we went to Changing Hands and I found a used copy of The Art of Ditko for $15, so I had to pick that up. And I also found that Stross's Rule 34 is out in paperback, so I grabbed me one of those too.

All in all, good times. And man, there are a lot of links in this post! My post probably looks like I ran Intellitext over it, except the links actually useful and pertinent and (hopefully) not just fucking obnoxious.